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Try this strategy to create a more inclusive workplace culture

Despite huge strides towards gender equality, the simple reality is it’s generally still easier to navigate and thrive in Aussie workplaces for men than it is for women. A persistent gender pay gap means women earn 23% less than men, and women are far less likely to be managers and CEOs.

Research shows routine workplace sexism is a huge barrier to women’s pay, progression and performance. Sexist behaviours can be obvious – like what motivated former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s famous misogyny speech – or hidden behind a ‘ladies first’ mentality that paints women’s capabilities as inferior.

So much of the work to close the gender gap is borne by women, but here’s the thing: men can take responsibility for change, too. How? By being an ally, explains Dr Beatrice Alba from Deakin’s School of Psychology.

‘As an ally, you declare that you understand women might face prejudice, stigma or marginalisation at work, and that you’re there to support rather than oppose women’s equality in the workplace,’ she says.

Here’s how to be a male ally and help to create a more inclusive workplace.

Knowing when to listen and when to speak up

Meetings and other collaborative situations are fertile ground for inadvertent sexism. Despite stereotypes to the contrary, research reveals an overall workplace trend that men often talk a lot more than women in meetings. While some individual workplaces may be exceptions to this rule, many women struggle to have their voices heard. Dr Alba says talking less and listening more can help men to amplify women’s voices.

‘A lot of women can recall a time when they made a suggestion to a group, but no one heard it,’ she says. ‘Two minutes later, a man says the same thing, and everyone loves the idea.

‘It’s about realising the extent to which we might not notice our own biases and our own tendency to either not listen or to be dismissive of someone because of their gender. Actively listening, amplifying and giving credit where it’s due is so important.’

Sometimes, however, it’s helpful to speak up. Men who witness sexist jokes or inappropriate comments or behaviour can ‘play a really powerful role in influencing other men’, Dr Alba says.

‘It’s a bit depressing, but men are sometimes more effective at calling out these behaviours because sexist men may be unwilling to listen to women, and they might be more receptive to critique when it comes from another man.’

Fighting unconscious bias

Male allyship also extends to more abstract domains like competence. Dr Alba says a common, yet largely incorrect, belief that women and men have vastly different innate skillsets can have a negative impact on the types of jobs women perform and their career progression.

‘One mistake that’s often made is overemphasising gender differences – what women and men are good at,’ she says. ‘If you overemphasise the fact that men and women are different, perhaps complementary, but different, that can erode women’s confidence.’

She says particularly in traditionally male dominated areas like STEM, it’s better not to put any emphasis on gender differences. ‘Make the fairly safe assumption that a woman is competent in that area. There’s no need to emphasise any difference in skill or ability.’

More broadly, Dr Alba says accepting that gender bias is a real thing and learning to foster empathy are key responsibilities for male allies.

‘Part of it is just being open-minded and considering that the science shows quite clearly that this bias exists, and the workplace is not a meritocracy because people face very large barriers due to their gender,’ she says.

‘Maybe it means reading more or asking women about their experiences. The research shows that fostering greater awareness and greater empathy among men reduces sexism.’

Swapping chivalry for empowerment

Then there are the behaviours that may seem like common courtesies – opening doors for women, carrying heavy objects for women and generally being extra kind and helpful towards women – that in fact entrench gender inequality. Dr Alba says the attitudes underlying these behaviours are called ‘benevolent sexism’.

‘There are often very many men who are well-meaning, kind, compassionate and empathic who want to do the right thing, but sometimes in wanting to be an ally they can also, perhaps without realising, perpetuate some of the problems that we see in the workplace,’ she says.

‘Benevolent sexism – where men think that women need extra care and protection because they’re a little bit more delicate – sounds quite positive, but it has a dark side where it’s quite condescending.

‘Men might have all the right intentions and think that they’re being nice to women, but at the same time they’re enacting sexism because they might be underestimating women’s abilities.’

Dr Alba says effective male allies examine the way help and assistance is offered to women. They avoid underestimating a women’s ability or assigning her less challenging tasks. ‘Women need to be given more challenging tasks that they’re quite capable of to be able to grow and advance in their careers.’

And, she says, male allies definitely don’t ‘mansplain’ or assume women don’t know something and can’t perform tasks simply because they’re female. ‘If instead of helping someone to solve a problem themselves, you come in and fix it for them, you’re not helping them learn to do it themselves and grow their own skills.’

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Dr Beatrice Alba
Dr Beatrice Alba


Faculty of Health,

Deakin University

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